Hi, I’m Justin Fenech, I’m a writer, a reader, and I don’t read female novelists.
Not much, anyway. And not deliberately. As a literary thought experiment let me just chimney-sweep an impromptu list of my favourite authors:
Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saul Bellow, Milan Kundera, Philip Roth, Graham Greene, Martin Amis, Vladimir Nabokov, Nikos Kazantzakis, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, J.M. Coetzee, Mario Vargas Llosa, Paul Bowles, Oscar Wilde, James Joyce, William Faulkner… need I go on? The Y-chromosome-heavy pattern surely is clear now.
I have read, and do read female novelists, great, immersive writers like Nadine Gordimer, Isabel Allende, George Eliot and Edwidge Danticat. But they are so few that they tend to be the exception that proves the rule.
Now I don’t, by any fathomable stretch of the imagination, consider myself a sexist or a misogynist. But given my tastes, the case seems hard to make. The evidence I’ve testified doesn’t help my case. But I never intentionally set out to read majority male writers. I never consciously said, let me see how many male authors I can get through!
Then why my overwhelming gender bias?
And I am sure I am not the only one. An article in The Guardian back in 2014 ran a consoling headline: Readers prefer authors of their own sex, survey finds. (Read the article here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/25/readers-prefer-authors-own-sex-goodreads-survey) So is it sexist to prefer authors of your own gender?
Of course, it isn’t. Just as it isn’t sexist for a man to prefer male friends, or women to prefer female friends. Just as it isn’t racist to prefer friends of your own ethnicity. By the way, you don’t do this consciously, but you do, after all, my pets, you are all sons and daughters of your evolution. Recognising a trait in us, which we might find displeasing, is not a cause for despair, we are, after all, the only species that can, poetically, surmount the botched-job evolution has made of us.
What is it, I ask myself in the name of fellow male readers, that lures us towards male authors? The first answer, one suspects, is the obvious one: men writers will write things men can relate to. Men problems. Men dreams. Men passions. Less obvious, and complex, is the writing style. Can you guess which of these sentences, about similar themes, is written by a man and which is written by a woman:
- “Often a man wishes to be alone and a girl wishes to be alone too and if they love each other they are jealous of that in each other, but I can truly say we never felt that. We could feel alone when we were together, alone against the others. But we were never lonely and never afraid when we were together.”
- “Perhaps we are in this world to search for love, find it and lose it, again and again. With each love, we are born anew, and with each love that ends we collect a new wound. I am covered with proud scars.”
Have you guessed it yet? Perhaps it’s too easy? I chose the subject of love for the comparison. A subject universal to both sexes. Ok, yes, we all know it: quote no. 1 was written by Ernest Hemingway and quote no. 2 by Isabel Allende.
Notice Hemingway’s diction. There is defiance running through the passage. By saying “but I can truly say we never felt that” he is marking himself out as unique, brave. “Alone against the others” gives his game away, as does “never afraid” – he is being defiant, love is a war, and he is a general.
As for Allende’s quote the tone is softer, more accepting, happier. “Find it and lose it, again and again”, there is a certain grace in defeat running through the sentence. And there is a sacrificial, happy-martyr’s attitude in her saying that love opens wounds and she is “covered with proud scars.” She knows the pain of love and happily submits to it, does not care in defying it.
Now the obvious footnote needs to be made here: I am not saying one passage is superior to the other. Nor that they are really representative. I’m just pointing out differences. And I will say, defiantly and proudly, that I prefer Hemingway’s passage. It must be the Y-chromosome in me, maybe I am a Y-reader.
And a Y-writer, as well. Although this is for others to judge, I consider my writing more masculine than feminine, though, if you asked me to quantify that, I would reply only vaguely: just read my stuff. We are dealing with intuition here (and yes, men have intuition too).
In a Vanity Fair article brazenly titled Why Women Aren’t Funny, Christopher Hitchens argued that women aren’t as funny as men because they don’t need to be. (Read the article here and judge it for yourself: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2007/01/hitchens200701) Because women are, Hitchens argues, historically bound to less frivolous work such as childbirth, rearing and maternal care, situations where humour hardly flourishes, humour has fallen off the female agenda somewhat: “One tiny snuffle that turns into a wheeze, one little cut that goes septic, one pathetically small coffin, and the woman’s universe is left in ashes and ruin. Try being funny about that, if you like.”
In a subsequent video interview he argues, and this might be pertinent to us here, that humour evolved as a male craft to attract females. Men, and in this I tend to agree with the Hitch, aren’t attractive. We are heavily flawed, so we need to come up with the goods if we ever hope to attract a beautiful sample of the opposite sex. We need to make women laugh, tell them good stories, paint them good pictures, otherwise, what are men good for? Women, on the other hand, don’t need to be funny to attract men. They already have enough going for them; their beauty, their tenderness, their intelligence and ingenuity. So humour, evolutionarily speaking, needn’t be part of their repertoire.
And I think Hitch’s argument can extend to literature. Historically, men have written more novels and, I challenge you, make a list of famous authors, prize-winning authors, and I bet you you will think of more men than women. There are, of course, the Austens, Brontes, Eliots and Woolfs of history, but aren’t they merely pebbles in the breeze? And when you think about it, I’m not saying anything controversial.
I am merely acknowledging the fact that men and women are roughly 20% different biologically. We aren’t as different as peacocks and peahens, but we’re hardly identical. Women, and this is a gift they bear, as I see it, are less interested in fame, in ambition, in status. That is, unfortunately for us, a male sphere, with exceptions. Men are more competitive, more determined to acquire thrones and presidencies. Because, once again, the more powerful a man, the more likely he is to attract an attractive female.
There is also the physiological difference. Whilst there are many women who are stronger than men, on average, men are bulkier, more muscular, more hardy. And for good evolutionary reasons, of course. That is why almost all sports still segregate men and women. Serena Williams is a far better tennis player than most men, unquestionably. But how does she compare to Andy Murray? The strongest of women cannot be as strong as the strongest man. Nor, on average, is she interested in being so.
Why am I going down this dangerous road? Maybe I’m trying to justify my own masculine taste in reading. And, it isn’t just reading. It’s music too. Female musicians, with the exceptions of Patti Smith, (hardly an effeminate woman) barely make it into my Pantheon of musical gods. It’s the same with favourite actors and poets too. So maybe, just maybe, my preference for male artists isn’t down to my own gender preference, but rather, it is down to mere odds.
Because of the biological differences between men and women, men are more likely to carve their names into the history books, for the aforementioned reasons. So, of course, when I set out to read, listen to music, watch films, or sports, I am more likely to encounter male examples.
Maybe the next generation will provide us with the shadow of an answer. The current crop of upcoming top-writers is a beautiful exception: there are as many great women authors as there are men. Authors like Taiye Selasi, Edwidge Danticat, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Han Kang, Mariana Enriquez, and others. If the next generation of male readers can’t be addicted to these authors, then, maybe there is something to a gender bias behind what we read.
In the meantime, blame what you will, but I will happy keep reading my Hemingways and Conrads, reading about war, drink, travel adventure, and defiant love.